Monday, April 23, 2012

Skydiving in Lille

My heart rate quickens, my face turns pale and my hands squeeze anything they can. I try to appear relaxed but the others chuckle whenever they look at me. It is the first time I have ever been in a propeller engine aircraft let alone jumped out of one, something I already regret.  

Like my instructor Frank said they would, "All ze stupeed questions" start to enter my head. What the hell am I doing ? Why didn't I just stay on the ground instead of getting into this bucket with wings? What if the parachute doesn't open? Visions creep into my mind, like us all falling into clouds of dust like Will E. Coyote when he sprints off a cliff trying to catch Road Runner.

4000 meters above the French fields below it is now too late for any of that, jumping is the only respectable way back. "OK ze light has gone green so we are now readzee to jump" says Frank as he motions to the open door. The camera man, who is just another jumper with a camera strapped to his helmet, climbs out and hangs onto the side of the plane. 

I suppress my emotions and try to remember what Frank told me; Grip the harness at the shoulders, curl my legs back under the plane and arch my back. "Yeah great," he says and then topples us into free fall. We tumble slightly before stabilizing with bellies parallel to the ground.  

A few moments later the camera man arrives in front of us. A tap on my shoulder signals it's now OK to put my arms out and wave at him like a mad man. I happily oblige. This is one of the greatest feelings I have ever experienced, all worries and doubts vaporise as we rip through the sky, I feel completely free.  

It is surreal, like we're flying and not falling at the speed of Gravity. The temperature is -15ยบ Celsius but I don't even notice. A piece of nylon shooting from Frank's backpack is the only thing that can now stop us from plummeting to death, yet we both laugh and smile. What seemed like minutes was just 10-15 seconds. 

Once the parachute opens we glide through the sky, spectacular views of Lille greet us as we drop out of the clouds, this is definitely the coolest way to get an aerial view of any city. 

Although expensive it is money well spent, the €230 will buy you an experience unlike any other. By the time we landed on the ground those anxious and nauseous feelings were distant memories and I was ready to go back up and do it again. 

A video of your dive will cost €80 and another €20 will buy about 150 photos. This is a bit too expensive in my opinion however I thought I would never do another jump and therefore coughed up the money. For what it's worth the quality of the video and photos is excellent. 

You must be 80 kg or under to do the tandem dive. You will also have to present a medical certificate (or a doctor's letter) stating that you are healthy enough to do a parachute jump, this seems to be a formality because they barely even looked at my doctor's letter however they won't let you jump without it.  

If you don't speak French make sure you request an instructor who speaks English (or your native tongue).
The pre-flight safety talk is very helpful and you need to understand it. They tell you exactly what to expect at each stage of the jump. For example, they will do a final safety check in the plane which involves pulling at the harnesses to make sure everything is tightened up, had I not had the safety talk I would have probably freaked out thinking there was something wrong.  

The Ecole Francaise de Parachutisme Lille Bondues may not seem like much when you arrive, I certainly thought so, however it is one of the most respected skydiving schools in France. 

One of the instructors said he had done over 1200 tandem jumps and, as he was still alive, I presume they all landed safely. He also added that only two people ever refused to get out of the plane. I'm thankful I didn't end up in the minority.  

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Rucksacks: what to think about?

The last time I purchased a rucksack was when I went inter-railing several years ago. The factors which influenced my decision were a.) how cool it looked and b.) how cheap it was. I made the decision without any real research or thought. Luckily, the rucksack was actually very durable and suitable for the trip.

Now looking to buy an upgrade before heading to south-east Asia on a three month trek I have decided to take a closer look at what actually makes a good rucksack. If nothing else it will help me to understand the long-winded jargon filled spiels of hungry salesmen  which I'm about be subjected to.

Having searched the internet for an hour or so it became clear that there are several things to consider when choosing your backpack. This is what I have learned.

With prices ranging from as little as €40 to several hundreds there certainly is the potential to spend as much as you want. While it can be an expensive purchase in the long it is probably worth coughing enough shekels to get a decent pack. 

Before going shopping it is worthwhile taking two measurements. The first should be of your torso (i.e. the length of your back), using a tailor's tape you should measure from the seventh vertebra (the slight bump at the base of your neck) to iliac crest (the spine's centre point between the tops of both hip bones). Secondly you need to measure your waistline about 3cm above the iliac crest, as most rucksacks now have adjustable waist belts this measurement is not as important however it is still useful to have.

Once you've taken the measurements it's time to decide on the size of your rucksack. Sizes generally range from 35-90 litres and your needs will be determined by the trip length, climate and accommodation arrangements. Obviously if you're travelling in winter the heavier clothes you need will take up more space. If you plan to camp, as opposed to stay in hostels, all this equipment will have to be carried on your back. Sierra Trading Post provide a useful table for picking a size commensurate with the demands of your trip.

“Stays” are the vertical metal strips which hold the backpack's shape and also shift it's weight onto your hips. Some packs also have a “framesheet”, this is a usually made of some high density lightweight plastic and prevents any hard or sharp objects sticking into you back. As both of these will affect the comfort and durability of your rucksack they should be of a high quality.

If you're not a fan of sweaty backs then make sure your rucksack is well ventilated. As the majority of manufacturers have conducted a considerable amount of research in this area, an effectie ventilation system shouldn't be too difficult to find. Be careful though, while some of the more sophisticated designs improve airflow and reduce sweating they do so at the cost of increased weight and reduced storage space.

Most of us need something to hold a camera, water, food etc. while out sightseeing but don't want to travel with two backpacks, a small detachable day pack is a nice solution to this problem. It clips onto the outside of your main rucksack so you never have to worry about carrying it in your hands while travelling from hostel to hostel.

If you will be trekking in hot weather it is advisable to have rucksack which accommodates a water reservoir, this will allow you to keep hydrated easily. A raincover is also essential for any wet and rainy climates.

Happy Shopping!

Sierra Trading Post:

Lowe Alpine:

Eastern Mountain Sports – How to fit a backpack:

Chasing Giants Along The Antrim Coastline

Equipped with bicycle, water bottles and a packed lunch (hot-cross buns) we made the 60km round trip from Portstewart to the Carrick-a-reed bridge and back again. As so many of Northern Ireland's most popular tourist attractions are within short distances from each other this is certainly a fun way to visit them. 

Cycling the route (see map below) is worth it for the scenery alone as it includes some of Ireland's most beautiful coastline. Look out for the surfers off the Portrush promenade and also on Whiterocks beach (just after Dunluce castle look down), if the waves are right you might see one or two barrels.

Most of the roads are relatively flat - there are a few hills but nothing major - and in good condition so this trip is not too demanding physically, even the least athletic Sunday rider should have no problem completing it.

If you happen to visit during slurry spreading season (as we did) be prepared for some potent nostril stiffening smells. While the stench of freshly sprayed manure does not please anyone it is a small price to pay for being out on the open road and getting a complete experience of the area.

Be sure and bring a good bike lock and a comfortable pair of shoes, many of the sites require you to walk quite a bit before you can actually see them. At the Giant's Causeway, for example, they will not let you bring your bike past the entrance, so you will have to lock it somewhere before making the long and steep 100m descent from the visitor's centre to the actual rocks.

To cap off your cycle I recommend dropping into Morelli's on the Portstewart promenade for some ice-cream. It's disappointing to know that any calories you have just burned off will be put back on in a single sitting however the incredible taste will make it seem worth while. With their huge variety of individual flavours and specialized sundaes you will not be disappointed.

Kick it into the big ring and enjoy. Happy cycling.

Dunluce Castle
Perched upon a towering limestone cliff Dunluce Castle commands an astounding view of the north Atlantic, if you are fortunate enough to visit on a clear day you should be able to see the Donegal coastline. From inside the courtyard you will appreciate the Castle's scale of the structure, believed to be over 500 years old it is remarkable that so many of its walls are still standing. The “Mermaid's Cave” is a passageway which runs underneath the entire castle and it is worth descending the many steps necessary to see it. I didn't count how many there was however be prepared for a small hike on the way back up, thigh and quad muscle burning inclusive.

Sandwiched between Dunluce Castle and the Giant's Causeway is the town of Bushmills, the birthplace of one of Ireland's most famous whiskies. If you are interested in the 400 years that have gone into perfecting this “Uisce Beatha” then a visit to the distillery is a must. A “wee” taster will also warm you up nicely before getting back on the saddle.

The Giant's Causeway
If you have ever wanted follow in the footsteps of giants then there is no place better place. Side by side in a honeycomb pattern these hexagonal pillars (over 40,000 of them) look more like the work of a modern sculptor than the result of an ancient volcanic eruption. The basalt formations are estimated to be 50-60 million years old and have been the focus of much geological research. If you feel like a walk you can take the “Finn McCool” trail and check out “The Organ,” “Finn's Boot” and “The Chimney Stacks.”

The Carrick-a-reed Bridge
From the most popular tourist attraction in Northern Ireland to the most picturesque. The Carrick-a-reed bridge was first used to safely transport salmon caught off the island's shores to the mainland. To this day the bridge still hangs 23 metres (c.eighty feet) above the sea below. No longer used by fishermen it now provides a safe crossing for thousands of nervous tourists every year. The Carrick-a-reed island itself boasts marvellous panoramic views reaching as far as Scotland. A visit between April and July will also allow you to witness the breeding season for a diversity of bird species. If crossing the bridge doesn't get your heart pumping the steep cycle from the visitor's centre to the main road certainly will.